Rights of the purchaser or owner of a legal copy

Legal Copy

A legal copy is a copy purchased from a vendor who is paying the copyright holder royalties, or from the copyright holder. A gift from the copyright holder is also a legal copy.

A copy taped or otherwise produced from a television broadcast is not a legal copy (though it is OK to own it for personal use). A xerox, tape, CD, or DVD made from a legal copy without permission of the copyright holder is not a legal copy. A bootleg recording of a performance is not a legal copy. A digital copy posted on the internet is almost certainly not a legal copy, though it is worth looking for information on copyright if it is an original work.

Doctrine of First Sale

Short version: if you have legally acquired a legal copy of a copyrighted work, you can dispose of that copy by sale, loan, rental, or gift (with some exceptions).

This right is enunciated and qualified in Section 109 of Title 17, ch. 1. It is the right of the owner of a copy purchased or obtained in a way sanctioned by the holders of the rights (no bootlegs, xeroxes, taped-off-broadcast, or otherwise pirated items).

The producer or seller of a copy of a media item cannot control what the purchaser or owner does with that particular copy. This law dates back to 1908 and referred originally to books, so it does not apply to rights involving performance.

What it means is that you have the right to give the copy away, to lend it, or to re-sell it. You do not have the right to copy it, however, or to change the trademark or labelling of the copy in a deceptive or confusing way.


First Sale applies to books, reels of tape or film, DVDs, CDs, software, videogames, and in principle to any legal download (but see below), with this exception, that one may not rent or lend for commercial purposes either audiorecordings or software.

Licensing and Contracts

Short version: The right of first sale, and other legal rights, can be signed away contractually, and sometimes you don't have a choice.

Thus for example the recipient of an advance copy or free copy of a DVD may be asked to sign an agreement saying that the copy will not be given away or sold. That signed contract is valid and supersedes First Sale. If the contract is merely implicit (e.g. the publisher prints on the cover or disk "not for lending or re-sale" before sending it to you, and your consent is implied by your accepting the item), it is weaker; see this case regarding re-selling labelled promotional copies.

A special problem for media libraries is the concept of the institutional license or tiered pricing. Some vendors of DVDs perceived as educational will sell DVDs only to individuals who waive the right to use the DVD in face-to-face teaching (and/or other Fair Use rights). Institutions, in order to obtain the DVD without waiving these rights, are charged many times the price individuals pay for the limited-rights copy. In other cases, the vendors include limited PPR rights in the higher price.

Software makers have devised the concept of "licensing" software, in an attempt to take it completely into the realm of contractual law. Whenever you click "I accept" on an End Users License Agreement (EULA, the scrolling interface at the beginning of a download or installation of software), you have signed a contract that limits your rights over the work you are about to download.

Digital materials constitute a special case, because of the ease of copying and the difficulty of preventing copying.

On the one hand, this has led to a plethora of authentic materials freely available on the web, often as Youtube postings (which however may be transitory) and/or under a Creative Commons license. These materials may still have restrictions on them.

On the other hand, it has led to the development of strong technological protections against digital copying, and the institution of sale under contract enforced by encoding that prevents the item from being downloaded, moved, or played in any but a proprietary player. If a film or song is only available via iTunes, a library can't lend it and it may be impossible for an instructor to use it in class. If it is only available in streaming formats on a pay-per-view basis, it becomes even more difficult. Instructors are prevented from exercising fair use by making clips for use in teaching, too.

Rights to view or show a legal copy

I see two questions here: public performance rights and those rights which are prevented by region coding.

Public Performance--not a right belonging to the owner of the DVD

Short version: If the situation is not an actual U.S. classroom or required screening of a film with the instructor or a representative present, the right to play a movie for a a group of people belongs to the copyright owner, and you have to pay for that right.

Educational use is a very limited legal concept. American law makes an exception to the rights discussed below for "performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction," provided the copy of the work is legal or at least not obviously illegal.

For a better understanding of Public Performance Rights, see the discussion of Copyright Owners' Rights.

Region coding

Short version: the buyer should be able to view and/or listen to a purchased copy on equipment available a reasonable price. For a discussion of the problem region coding provides with respect to viewing DVDs, see the discussion under DMCA.

In a Memorandum to the Librarian of Congress on October 27, 2003, Marybeth Peters, Register of Copyrights, gave her Recommendation for Rulemaking on Exemptions from Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies. Many peitioners had asked for the right to circumvent the region coding on DVD players in order to view non-region 1 DVDs.The decision of the Register was that, since a DVD drive on a computer is both cheap and effective in legally playing back a non-region 1 DVD without circumventing the code, no exception to the laws against circumventing the code should be needed. Note: ALL the persons commenting on this problem were complaining that they could not play a DVD from a particular region; none of them needed to play DVDs from more than two regions (Region 1 + one other)..

The Register of Copyrights commented: "It is uncontested that merely watching a lawfully obtained copy of a non-region 1 DVD is a noninfringing use." Thus she supported the principle that if you own or borrow an item of media, you have the right to read, view, or otherwise enjoy it at a reasonable cost (e.g the purchase of a DVD drive for a computer). Other decisions that year also showed this principle: she approved the right to circumvent digital protections if they prevented one from playing a game or using software designed to work on obsolete hardware, or if they required a dongle which had broken, or if they prevented the visually impaired from implementing screen reading programs.